Diaries and Diarists

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How much history do they really reveal?

Chris Mullin’s diary entry for July 1 2016 marks the centenary of the opening of the Battle of the Somme, arguably the most disastrous day in the history of the British Army. Its 57,000 casualties on that first day almost exactly matched those suffered by the forces of the United States in all their years in Vietnam, a country the former Labour MP for Sunderland South knows well.

This fourth diary of the journalist and former Tribune editor who served 23 years in Parliament, four as a New Labour minister, extends from his retirement in 2010 to 2022. Many of those years were spent with his Vietnamese wife “in this privileged little cocoon of ours” behind the walls of their garden in rural Northumberland. (P176)

Not far away are the Otterburn Ranges, still in use by the military and where another diarist, Tom Easton, trained for that Somme battle as a volunteer with the Tyneside Scottish.

Easton, a miner from the Northumberland coast Mullin regularly explores, kept diaries throughout the First World War and the decades he spent afterwards underground and in voluntary service to the widows and children of his old comrades, trade union and local community. I only learned of them through the work of my former Washington Post colleague Mike Kernan who formed a close friendship with Easton and drew heavily on them in writing The Violet Dots.

Through Mike I had the good fortune to meet Easton in his later years and I tried unsuccessfully to find a British publisher for the fine book based on his diaries. My small tribute to his subject’s modest and heroic life was to adopt Tom Easton as my pen name.

Mullin’s account of the full life he continues to enjoy post-Parliament are indexed but not footnoted and assume the reader has some knowledge of current events and the context in which they were written. Kernan’s book draws heavily on Easton’s diaries and conversations he recorded with him. The author, who died in 2005, was a widely experienced news journalist, professionally skilled in recording events and conversations.

To make this material easier for the reader to understand, Kernan sets the context: he quotes from histories of mining, Northumberland and the First World War. He draws on books on military surgery and the diaries of Easton’s fellow soldiers. In 1978, when The Violet Dots was published, these last were mostly those of officers, not of lower ranks like Easton, who, after crossing no-man’s land on July 1, was later taken prisoner and made to work in German pits.

This rich contextual background is rarely the case with diarists and one of the reasons we should not attach too much importance to them. In our celebrity culture, access to public figures and tittle-tattle about them by their familiars are the stuff of profitable newspaper serialisation and, as Mullin well describes, literary festivals and book signings in pleasant places.

This is not to say they are without worth, and those of Mullin, who deserves to be celebrated for his work on behalf of the Birmingham Six, do throw up the occasional addition to our political knowledge of New Labour and subsequent governments.

I read them in July alongside my annual dip into The Violet Dots, prompting me to reflect on diaries and their value in helping us understand the world. Some, such as those of Anne Frank, are moving and powerful historical documents. Others, of which Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest is a fine example, are more rounded memoirs drawn from recorded events in the author’s life.

However, Mullin’s reference to meeting diarist Sasha Swire, the wife of Conservative former minister Hugo Swire, points up the limitations of the diary/memoir genre. (P496)

In her Diary of an MP’s Wife, for example, she retells being at the East Devon constituency count for the 2017 general election: “It is the early hours of the morning now, and our beloved long-time helper, John Humphreys, approaches and is whispering into Hugo’s ear, ‘Two gentlemen come to see you outside, Hugo.’ John, a leading Mason, finds anything cloak and dagger quite normal.” (P320)

What we do not learn from her account is that “stalwart supporter John Humphreys”, a long-time senior Conservative councillor in East Devon, is now serving a 21-year jail sentence for sexually assaulting two boys during the time he was a Swire “beloved long-time helper”.

Similarly the diaries of former Conservative minister Sir Alan Duncan are informative when he talks about the influence of the Israel lobby inside Parliament but thin on his own involvement with Oman.

Mullin’s diaries read well, fluently recounting events from his busy life after Westminster. These include those as regional chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the committee of the Northumberland National Park and as a Man Booker judge alongside former MI5 head Stella Rimington. His observations are sharp but usually generous, yet, by the very nature of unfootnoted diaries, their accuracy cannot be vouched for.

To his credit, he rarely falls into the trap of retelling encounters with others in direct speech, a failing of many books containing extensive use of quoted exchanges which the author was in no position to accurately recall. In some cases these authors recount “conversations” at which they were not even present. Much political writing has lots of this hearsay, material which is properly not admitted in court hearings for its partiality and general unreliability. A variation is the extensive journalistic use of quotations from unidentified sources – “a party insider”, “a senior source” “a friend of the minister” etc.

Mullin largely avoids this hearsay snare and has some memorable passages, including this from Wednesday September 2 2015:

“All over Europe, migrants – Sudanese, Eritrean, Bangladeshi, but above all Syrian – are camped out along roads and railways tracks. The EU is paralysed; no one has an answer. Admit a million and a million more will come. The wretched of the earth are no longer remote, shadowy figures occasionally glimpsed in some TV documentary or in the bottom half of a new bulletin. They are here, in Europe, battering at our gates. I have long known this day would come, but I thought that climate change rather than the collapse of Arab tyrannies was the more likely cause.” (P119)

Overall he appears to be very discreet – a conscientious and principled guardedness on sources even when legally pressed in 2022 by the West Midlands Police to disclose them. But did the author of A Very British Coup never, for example, ask top spook Rimington about her monitoring of politicians such as himself?

Mullin tells us that in the 2015 Labour leadership election “I played safe and plumped without enthusiasm for Yvette Cooper, but I am not advertising the fact.” (P120) At other times he identifies Chuka Umunna and Hilary Benn as potential Labour leaders, and sees Lisa Nandy as a bright Labour prospect. In March 2017 he observes the “taut, tense, tanned” Tony Blair “making a thinly disguised argument for a second [Brexit] referendum” – adding “one yearns for the quality of leadership that he once provided”. (P222)

He writes warmly about Jeremy Corbyn’s integrity but sees none of the leadership qualities he admired in Blair. He writes on the day of Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015:

“In my heart I still believe Jeremy can’t possibly lead us to victory, but I have to admit to butterflies in my stomach as the moment approached and a tear welling up when the margin of his victory became apparent. A truly astonishing result. We live in extraordinary times. If only my old friend Tony Benn had been alive at this hour.” (P123)

Four years later at Dartington he shared the perception of Benn’s daughter Melissa “that Jeremy has been unfairly traduced over antisemitism (last night’s Panorama was devoted to the subject). Nor is it helpful to have his supposed deputy, Tom Watson, popping up every five minutes saying how shocked/chilled/appalled he is. Oddly enough the wider public doesn’t seem to share the media obsession with the issue. The subject arose briefly at my session yesterday and no one argued with my response: that there is a problem and it may well have been mishandled, but it is a small problem that has been blown out of proportion by those who have a different agenda.” (P352)

Is Mullin again retreating into discretion over the Israel lobby, the Murdoch/Rothermere media and especially the Atlanticist network he outlines in his A Very British Coup,or is he genuinely unaware of their combined power exercised at the heart of New Labour from its creation?

The same question arose in my mind when he recounts his regular social meetings with Northumberland’s well-to-do and well-connected. These include Dominic Cummings’ in-laws and Matt Ridley, the chair of Northern Rock whose bank run in 2007 heralded the global financial crisis:

“Saturday 10 February [2018] To Chillingham for dinner with Humphry and Katherine Wakefield and half a dozen aristos. An enjoyable evening, but an undercurrent of unease about the prospect of a Corbyn government. ‘Is he a communist?’ Someone asked. She added, ‘My parents suffered badly under communism.’ I did my best to explain that Jeremy is modest, down to earth and more green than red, but it didn’t cut much ice. The fact that he so keen on the Chavez regime in Venezuela was cited as evidence for the prosecution. Home at midnight through driving rain and sleet and flooded lanes.” (P273)

So, while admiring much in this bite-sized stroll through these 12 years, I return to my question about the value of political diaries as any kind of guide to history. In doing so I also find myself celebrating the efforts of my former Washington Post friend Mike Kernan in presenting the life and also the times of Tom Easton so fully to his readers.

Mike and I worked at The Post under the editorship of Ben Bradlee, made famous to many outside journalism and politics by Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in All the President’s Men.

His four-point criteria for fairness and accuracy in reporting are ones I come back to in reviewing any writing, including diaries and memoirs, that claims to be helping us understand the world.

Here they are from Bradlee’s “Standards and Ethics” introduction to the house stylebook Mike and I worked with:

“No story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance. Fairness includes completeness.

“No story is fair if it includes essentially irrelevant information at the expense of significant facts.

“No story is fair if it consciously or unconsciously misleads or even deceives the reader. Fairness includes honesty – leveling with the reader.

“No story is fair if reporters hide their biases or emotions behind such subtly pejorative words as ‘refused’, ‘despite’, ‘quietly’, ‘admit’ and ‘massive’. Fairness requires straightforwardness ahead of flashiness.”

These may seem severe demands placed upon those who jot down for publication snippets from their daily lives. But as many see diaries as a digestible substitute for political history, we do well not to take them too seriously when most fail Bradlee’s stringent accuracy and fairness tests.

Mullin’s fellow Man Booker judge Matthew D’Ancona is quoted on the dust-jacket cover of these diaries saying of the author: “He will join Alan Clark in the pantheon of truly great diarists”. It will be remembered that Clark, an admiring minister of Margaret Thatcher, admitted in court to being “economical with the actualité”.

Clark’s fellow Tory Dominic Lawson later described the so-called “Samuel Pepys of the 20th century” as “sleazy, vindictive, greedy, callous and cruel”. So I’m not sure why Biteback would think that putting a favourable reference to Clark on the cover of Mullin’s latest work would be seen as a recommendation – except to those who diet on diaries rather than consume a fuller version of history.

Mullin deserves a better accolade. This set of diaries shows him to be a humane, decent and discreet figure who has led an interesting life, much of it in service to others. But diaries being what they are, this one needs to be taken only as an inviting sniff of an hors d’oeuvre to the full meal that one day may become the richer and largely unwritten history of our nation. In this much-needed endeavour Mullin, with an intelligent awareness of the world inside and outside Westminster, would be well placed to write an insightful chapter.

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